Three rabbis convicted in religious divorce ring


Three rabbis were convicted of planning to kidnap Jewish men in order to force them to grant their wives a religious writ of divorce.

The rabbis, who are Orthodox, were convicted late Tuesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, of conspiracy to commit kidnapping. Two of the rabbis also were convicted of attempted kidnapping.

The jury debated for three days following a two-month trial in the case of Rabbis Jay Goldstein, 60, and Binyamin Stimler, 39, both of Brooklyn, New York, and Mendel Epstein, 69, of Lakewood, New Jersey, CBS New York reported.

The conspiracy charge carries a possible life sentence, Reuters reported, citing the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sentencing was set for July 15.

The rabbis were part of a group of men, including at least one other rabbi, who operated a ring that kidnapped husbands and used violence, including beatings and stun guns, until the they agreed to the religious divorce.

Under Orthodox Jewish law, a wife cannot divorce without obtaining the writ, known as a get, from her husband. She also can not remarry in a Jewish ceremony without the get.

The ring was caught in an FBI sting operation in October 2013 in which federal agents posing as a Jewish woman and her brother sought the gang’s services. The “husband” was to be assaulted at a warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. When the other men arrived at the warehouse wearing masks and carrying rope, surgical knives and a screwdriver, they were arrested.

The convictions came three months after Rabbi Martin Wolmark, 56, of Monsey, New York, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. He will be sentenced on May 18.

Parents of kidnapped U.S.-Israeli teen: ‘Israel will bring you back’


The parents of Naftali Frenkel, one of three teens kidnapped last week, assured their son that “Israel will bring you back.”

“Naftali, Mom and Dad and your siblings love you to no end. Know that Israel is turning the world upside down to bring you home,” Rachel Frenkel said in a message to her son during a meeting with reporters on Sunday afternoon in Nof Ayalon, a city in the center of Israel near Modiin where the family lives.

It was the first time that the parents of the 16-year-old boy, a dual Israeli-American citizen, have addressed the media since the kidnapping Thursday night.

Naftali Frenkel; Gilad Shaar, 16, from Talmon, a West Bank settlement; and Eyal Yifrach, 19, from Elad, near Petach Tikvah, were last seen trying to get rides home from a yeshiva high school in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.

“We are optimistic, with God’s help, He will see the combined effort of the prayers and solidarity, and we will embrace Naftali, Eyal and Gilad here,” Frenkel said.

Later in the day, Shaar’s mother, Bat Galim, offered similar sentiments in a briefing with reporters in Talmon.

Frenkel, who is a U.S. citizen, said the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv has been “very supportive.”

“We are grateful to every soldier in the field, Knesset member, parents of soldiers and the media for bringing our story to the world,” she said, adding that the family has been in constant touch with the Israeli army, police, the Shin Bet security service and government representatives.

Frenkel also praised her family, friends and neighbors for looking out for her, her husband and her six other children since the start of the episode.

A Nof Ayalon resident told JTA that community residents have been instructed not to talk to reporters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that members of Hamas kidnapped the teens.

Modern slavery: Answering the cry


Modern slavery is everywhere, and women principally are its victims. 

Whether kidnapped by a single deviant, as appears to be the case in Cleveland, or trafficked en masse across national borders for purposes of labor or sex exploitation, women’s lives are being stolen from them. Unlike Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, whose ordeals currently dominate the national news, most victims suffer — and sometimes die — in silence and anonymity.  

In the last decade, human trafficking and enslavement worldwide has exploded, rising from more than 12 million victims in 2005 to nearly 21 million victims in 2012. Everyone from organized crime syndicates to street gangs has (re)discovered the cheap cost of a reusable good — human life. 

According to a 2012 report by State Attorney General Kamala Harris, global profits from human trafficking surpassed $32 billion last year with almost 18,000 people smuggled into the United States destined for forced labor in industries and homes across our country. Shockingly, thousands more are American citizens — most often vulnerable girls, many of them runaways — who are lured via social media and other means into forced prostitution. 

These statistics are daunting, but there is hope — hope born of human kindness. 

“S” was brought to the United States from Indonesia to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple in La Cañada — a suburb of Los Angeles. The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home and forced her to work without pay 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street. 

The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home. … If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.  

Despite these threats, “S” repeatedly tried to escape. The first time, she approached members of a construction crew working across the street, asking them to take her to the Indonesian Consulate, but they did not know where to go. Her next attempt was with a local plumber working down the block. 

Plumber: A lady approached me across the street with a note and request me to call the embassy. I called, and they claim they did not know her. I told her I had to finish my job. I’ll try to come back out to talk to her more. 

Attorney: What happened when you came back out?

Plumber: She was gone. I never saw her again.

This testimony was taken from the trial of a civil lawsuit brought by Bet Tzedek Legal Services with pro bono co-counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Ultimately, “S” was freed because those initial encounters gave her courage to call an American friend, who alerted the police. The traffickers were prosecuted criminally and were sued civilly by Bet Tzedek, resulting in what is believed to be the first successful civil jury verdict under the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005. At trial, the traffickers claimed that “S” was a guest in their home and argued that she fabricated the enslavement story in order to obtain a T-Visa, a special visa reserved by the federal government for trafficking victims.

“S” is among many victims whose stories have a happy ending because complete strangers recognized their plight and took action. The next three women, all clients of Bet Tzedek, never would have escaped without help. 

“A” was trafficked from Peru by a college professor who forced her to work as an unpaid domestic servant. A tenant on the professor’s property sensed something was wrong and gave her Bet Tzedek’s phone number. Following a series of secret meetings between “A” and her attorney, the professor became suspicious, drugged “A” and dumped her in Tijuana. Bet Tzedek found “A,” alerted the Peruvian Consulate and secured her release.  

“J” was brought to Los Angeles from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Once here, she was confined to the family condo, without pay, without her passport and without access to a phone or computer. Her first attempt to escape failed when “J” panicked and rejected the assistance of a health care practitioner who tried to help her. A second attempt succeeded when the condo doorman, who asked her if something was wrong, helped her to sneak out of the building and run away. 

“M” left an abusive husband in Ethiopia to work as a domestic servant in California, even though she spoke no English. Her employers beat her repeatedly, causing multiple injuries, including broken teeth. After one particularly brutal beating, she kicked open the back door of the house where she was being held and escaped. “M” lived on the streets for almost a month before a woman in a park approached her to ask if she needed help and took her to Little Ethiopia, where community members found her shelter. During her captivity, she had frequented many public places with the family, including Disneyland.

“These stories are all too common,” said Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to trafficking victims and trains law enforcement officials, first responders and legal advocates how to recognize and assist victims. CAST has spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts resulting in the creation of stronger laws, including the 2005 Victims Protection Act and the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires any retailer or manufacturer with annual worldwide revenues of more than $100 million to disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.

These laws, and others at the federal level, form the backbone of a growing structure designed to combat trafficking. But laws are meaningless without civic participation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to slaveryfootprint.org or free2work.org.

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­bettzedek.org/volunteer or castla.org/volunteer


Elissa Barrett is vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Kevin Kish is director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.

Kidnapping plot against Tunisian Jewish community reportedly foiled


A network plotting to kidnap and ransom members of a southern Tunisia town's Jewish community was broken up by the country's national guard, a Tunisian newspaper reported.

The network was started by a police officer who was formerly responsible for protecting the Jewish community, according to the report  in Al Hacad, a Tunisian weekly. The officer was reportedly recruiting young Tunisians to take part in a kidnapping operation that aimed to force Tunisian Jews to leave the country. He had a car registered in Libya as well as firearms stockpiled.

A Jewish resident of the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis told JTA that extra security measures had been taken up by the national guard in the Jewish neighborhood, where about 100 Jews live.

“I was wondering why we had a new army truck stationed about 40 meters from our synagogue for the past week, and then I read about this,” he said.

The police officer reportedly was known for being involved in an Islamic extremist group and was plotting to carry out a kidnapping operation on a Friday evening when local Jews spend Shabbat on the beach.

After the plot was foiled, all those behind it were arrested. The case has been referred to the Court of First Instance in Tunis.

While relations between Muslims and Jews in Zarzis have been relatively calm in recent years, there have been past incidents where the Jewish community was the target of violence.  In 1982 the synagogue in Zarzis was torched, and Torah scrolls were destroyed in the blaze. The arson attack was considered a response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.

Hamas vows to capture more Israeli soldiers


On the one-year anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s release Oct. 18, Hamas’s leadership spoke openly about capturing more Israeli soldiers in order to use them as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

“It should serve as a road map to free Palestinian prisoners in the future,” Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh said at an event marking the anniversary.

Haniyeh’s comments followed remarks earlier in the day by Abu Obeida, the spokesman for the military wing of Hamas.

“The theory of the solider safe inside his fort has been shattered,” Obeida said. “The enemy soldiers can at any moment be killed, or captured, or made disabled, regardless of the weapons they have, because they are facing the soldiers of God.”

According to Haaretz, Obeida also spoke about the release of a Hamas-produced film called “The Dispersion of Illusion,” which documents the 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit, including preparations for his kidnapping and release.

Shalit was released on October 18, 2011 after more than five years in captivity in Gaza. He was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were convicted terrorists.

Plot to attack London Jewish neighborhoods is revealed


Documents detailing a plot to attack Jewish neighborhoods in London were found on the body of an African leader of al-Qaida.

The plans, which included plots for a kidnapping and attacks on Eton College and the Ritz and Dorchester hotels in London, were found on the body of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, 38, who was shot last year by Somali forces as he tried to crash through a government checkpoint, the Toronto Star reported Wednesday.

According to the plans, the terrorists would strike London’s Stamford Hill and Golders Green neighborhoods, which are populated with “tens of thousands of Jews crammed in a small area,” the Star reported.

“Our objectives are to strike London with low-cost operations that would cause a heavy blow amongst the hierarchy and Jewish communities,” it says in the document, titled “International Operations.”

“These attacks must be backed with a carefully planned media campaign to show why we chose our targets to refute hypocrites, clear doubts amongst Muslims and also inspire Muslim youth to copy.”

Fazul was indicted in the United States for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that left 224 dead.

A close ally of Osama bin Laden, Fazul was killed just six weeks after the al-Qaida founder.

Man in custody implicated himself in Etan Patz’ disappearance


Police in New York say they have man in custody who has implicated himself in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz.

Patz, who was 6 at the time of his disappearance, never made it to his school bus stop in SOHO on March 25, 1979, the first time he had walked to the bus stop by himself. His mother did not realize that he had not been in school all day until he failed to return home at the end of the school day.

Police took the man into custody on Wednesday, and said they would release more details on Thursday.

In April, police dug up a basement in SoHo that belonged to a former handyman, Othniel Miller, which was located on Etan’s route to the school bus. No new evidence was uncovered.

Jose Ramos, 68, a convicted pedophile due to be released from prison in November, was declared responsible for Etan’s death in a 2004 civil case. But no one was ever arrested and charged with the boy’s disappearance.

French Islamic militants planned to kidnap Jewish judge


Suspected Islamic militants arrested throughout France were planning terrorist attacks including kidnapping a Jewish judge.

The 13 members of the extremist group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride, were among 19 suspected Islamic militants arrested last week in France. They are currently under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters Tuesday. Preliminary charges are being filed against the 13, and nine will remain in police custody, he said.

The men reportedly planned to kidnap a Jewish judge in Lyon, in southeast France.

Molins said that there is no tie between this group and gunman Mohamed Merah, who killed children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulose on March 21, as well as three French military personnel the previous week. Merah told French police that he killed the Jewish students at the school in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers the previous week for serving in Afghanistan. He also claimed links to al-Qaida, as does Forsane Alizza.

The terrorists’ arrests were part of a French crackdown in the wake of Merah’s attack in Toulouse. France on Monday also expelled five radical Islamic ministers.

Al Qaeda’s Zawahri says group kidnapped American in Pakistan


Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of an American man in Pakistan and demanded the release of prisoners and an end to air strikes in Muslim countries in exchange for his freedom, according to the SITE online monitoring service.

SITE said the announcement was made in a recording by al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri posted on an Islamist website and monitored on Thursday.

“Just as the Americans detain all whom they suspect of links to al Qaeda and the Taliban, even remotely, we detained this man who is neck-deep in American aid to Pakistan since the seventies,” SITE quoted Zawahri as saying in the recording.

Assailants kidnapped Warren Weinstein, an American development expert, in August in the Pakistani city of Lahore, according to a top Pakistani police official.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Sophie Hares

Gilad Shalit undergoes surgery to repair abduction injuries


Gilad Shalit has undergone surgery to repair wounds from his 2006 abduction.

The successful surgery Friday at Rambam Hospital in Haifa removed seven pieces of shrapnel in Shalit’s hand, according to news reports.

Shalit was released from captivity two and a half weeks ago in exchange for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners. He will spend his second weekend of freedom at Rambam for observation.

Earlier this week, a lawmaker from the haredi Orthodox Shas Party, Menshulam Nahiri, criticized Shalit for not spending his first weekend in synagogue.

Despite fears, no Israeli troops kidnapped


Acting on an uncorroborated report about a soldier’s abduction near Lod, security forces mounted a sweeping roadblock effort in the greater Tel Aviv region on Thursday, where car-by-car inspections resulted in massive traffic disruptions.

After initiating an urgent internal check, the Israel Defense Forces said all its troops were accounted for. A previously unknown Palestinian group calling itself the “Al-Quds Army” claimed that it had kidnapped an Israeli soldier Thursday, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported. However, the Israel Defense Forces said that other than the single report, it had no indication that any of its troops had been abducted.  Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Europeans: Gilad Shalit transfer to Egypt imminent


European diplomatic sources said Thursday that kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit will be transferred to Egypt in the coming hours or coming days.

This information has yet to be confirmed by Israeli officials.

According to the European sources, Shalit’s transfer is the first stage of an agreement between the various Palestinian factions, assisted by Egyptian mediation and done in coordination with the United States and with the support of Syria. Read the full story at HAARETZ.com.

Kidnapped Iranian Jew’s family finds closure


On a spring morning in 1980, following the turbulent Islamic revolution in Iran, Isaac Lahijani, an affluent Jewish architect and real estate developer, said goodbye to his wife, Farzaneh, and his children, and left his home in Tehran for another routine day at work.

Soon after, he was kidnapped and held for ransom by unknown armed thugs of the newly-formed Iranian government.

For 26 years there was no word of Lahijani’s fate. His wife and three children say they wept for weeks and months, unable to hold a memorial for him because they had no information about his whereabouts. The Lahijani family continued living in grief until this September, when Farzaneh Lahijani was finally given an official letter from the Iranian government telling her of her husband’s death.

“After agonizing searching and denials from the Iranian authorities telling my mother to go and come for 26 years, she found out from a two-sentence letter that they indeed have killed my father and that they want to pay restitution for his blood,” said Kaveh Lahijani, the 45-year-old son of Isaac Lahijani.

The timing of the letter’s arrival was indeed unique for Kaveh Lahijani, who is a member of the Laguna Beach Chabad and had long been planning to dedicate a new Torah to the synagogue in memory of his father.

“In Judaism, you cannot do anything in memory of someone when you don’t know if they are alive or not,” Laguna Beach Chabad Rabbi Eli Goorevitch explained. “So the letter from Iran was perfect timing for us because Kaveh wanted to keep his father’s memory alive with this Torah dedication.”

Lahijani said he had planned the dedication for the past year, but was unable to locate an appropriate time to do so because of schedule conflicts. As it turned out, the only time available — Sept. 9 — was Isaac Lahijani’s birthday.

“The fact that we dedicated the Torah on his birthday when we couldn’t have done it on any other day was a sign for me that he was with us and supporting us,” said Lahijani, a Laguna Beach resident. “It was just one of many amazing things that have happened where I know my father is with me.”

Kaveh Lahijani and other members of his family said they were uncomfortable with sharing the exact details of Isaac Lahijani’s kidnapping, because of the years of suffering they have had to endure. However, Kaveh Lahijani said shortly after the kidnapping occurred, his family received a ransom note and a tape recording of his father’s voice asking for the ransom to be paid.

“We paid the ransom but never saw him. Instead we got another letter demanding that we pay more in ransom,” he said. “Then my mother received news that my father was being held in Evin Prison, but she was not permitted to visit him. Since then we have not received any information from the government about my father — until now.”

Evin Prison is a maximum-security facility allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, said Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist.

Last September, Iranian Jewish families in the United States and Israel filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court over the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of 12 Iranian Jews who sought to escape Iran between 1994 and 1997. Iranian government officials have repeatedly denied holding these missing Iranian Jews in custody and claim they were killed by border smugglers while trying to flee the country.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Nikbakht, the Jewish community still in Iran lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from terrorist Islamic factions. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

Kaveh Lahijani said that while he and his siblings are content with having closure regarding the fate of their father, his mother, who resides in Iran, has refused to accept the government’s explanation and will press on with her own investigation.

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

Documentary: Sao Paolo nightmare gives lesson in class warfare


In “Manda Bala,” Jason Kohn’s nightmarish documentary of Brazil, a young woman describes how a “secret admirer” kept phoning her home in Sao Paolo. But when she went to meet him, she found the flattery was a ruse to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. She was chained inside a box, and her ears were sliced off and sent to her father as a Father’s Day present. “I only knew it was night or day because of the TV,” the woman says in the movie. “‘The Birds,’ by Alfred Hitchcock, was on the day they cut my first ear. That night I dreamed that a bird had bitten my ear off. I still have that dream today.”

In “Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”), Kohn portrays a dystopian nation where the rich steal from the poor and the poor literally “steal” the rich. The “characters” include a politician who allegedly stole billions from a poverty fund, a frog farmer who allegedly laundered the money, a kidnapper who uses ransom loot to help his community and a businessman so afraid of being kidnapped that he wants a microchip implanted in his body as a sort of human LoJack.

The movie won best documentary and documentary cinematography awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and “is as well directed as a thriller,” according to a review in The Hollywood Reporter.

“Once you get past the gore, which takes many forms – from frogs eating each other to a long sequence in a plastic surgeon’s theater as he restores a cut-off ear – ‘Manda Bala’ makes a powerful statement about the consequences of wanting the good life at any cost.”

The brisk, brash documentary is to be expected of Kohn, 28, who describes himself as a New York “leftie Jew” and, above all, a “radical atheist.” He says he lives in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and does not own a home telephone (he uses his cell). His connection to Brazil comes from his South American émigré parents, who forced him to attend a Conservative religious school, which he despised because even as a child he did not believe in God. “But some of my favorite heroes come from a certain tradition of secular intellectual Jews who have changed the world for the better … : Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud,” he says.

Kohn grew up working in his family’s store near Times Square, which catered to Brazilian tourists. But the seeds of “Manda Bala” came later, after his parents divorced and Jason began visiting his father’s new home in Sao Paolo. “In America, my father was just another middle-class guy, but in Brazil, he lived [lavishly],” the filmmaker says. “Not only did he have a maid, but everyone had a maid, and many people had two maids. I was fascinated that people were driving around in bullet-proof cars.”

From the balcony of a relative’s apartment, Kohn could see sprawling slums just beside a wealthy enclave of sleek high-rise apartments.

After Kohn graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in history and film in 2001, his father told him about the “frog farm” scandal. Around the same time, Kohn read a newspaper story about a Sao Paolo plastic surgeon who specialized in ears. Kohn flew down to Brazil to visit the frog farm, where he noted that the larger amphibians ate the smaller ones – an image he felt might work in a film about class warfare.

He discussed the idea with his mentor, the eccentric documentarian, Errol Morris, for whom he was working as a research assistant.

“The story had crime, mutilation, cannibalism and the potential for metaphor, which fascinated Errol,” Kohn says. “He suggested that I see this brutal French film, ‘I Stand Alone,'” which was shot in 16mm film with anamorphic lenses – a good way to shoot a very wide-looking movie cheaply. I thought that might help me [depict] Sao Paolo as the kind of futuristic, anti-utopian city you might see in a science fiction film.”

In 2002, Kohn left his job, sold his car and moved down to Sao Paolo to try to make his movie.

It was a rash move, since he was only 22, didn’t have much money and didn’t know any Brazilian politicians. But he knew some of his father’s friends within Sao Paolo’s tight-knit Jewish community, and he slowly began to make contacts. A police detective introduced Kohn to the young woman whose ears became a Father’s Day present; and authorities gave Kohn torture videos that had been sent to other victims’ families.

By April 2006, Kohn had cut his film, but he still lacked the ending he had envisioned – an interview with a real kidnapper.

“I was depressed, broke and basically living on my stepbrother’s bed,” he recalls.

A break came when a cabbie offered to introduce Kohn to a kidnapper who served as the “don” of a local slum. Several days later, the cabbie drove Kohn and his crew to the thug’s compound – a block of shacks surrounded by walls and equipped with an elaborate security system.

The 35-year-old criminal, Magrinho, was relaxed and affable during the two-hour interview, describing how he began stealing food for his family at age 9, and how he turned from bank robbing to kidnapping because it was more profitable. “You either steal with a gun or with a pen – politicians steal with a pen,” he says in the movie.

The interview was cut short, however, when security monitors showed police entering the slum and rushing toward Magrinho’s compound. The kidnapper grabbed his gun as the filmmakers cowered in a detritus-filled courtyard.

“I thought he’d assume we had brought the police, in which case we would all have been executed on the spot,” Kohn says.

But it turned out the police had come only to extort bribes from Magrinho, and when they didn’t find him on the streets, they left.

Even though “Manda Bala” is largely set in Sao Paolo, Kohn believes the movie is universal.

“It is as much about present-day Brazil as it could be about the United States in five years,” he says.

The film opens Aug. 31 in Los Angeles.frog cannibalism
Frog cannibalism – a metaphor for class conflict in ‘Manda Bala.”

Another reporter freed? Nothing new under the Palestinian sun


After almost four months, a BBC correspondent in Gaza, Alan Johnston, has been freed.

Johnston was kidnapped at gunpoint in Gaza City on March 12. His captors — members of a radical, shadowy Palestinian group called the Army of Islam — threatened days before his release “to slaughter him like sheep,” and released a video clip in which he appeared with an explosive belt strapped to his body, to be detonated, his captors warned, if there was an attempt to rescue him by force.

Covering Gaza has become more and more dangerous. On Aug. 14, 2006, two journalists working for Fox News — Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig — were abducted by a group nobody had heard of before: the Holy Jihad Brigades. While Johnston’s kidnappers demanded the release of prisoners associated with al Qaeda held in Jordan and the United Kingdom, the people who had abducted the Fox journalists demanded the release of prisoners held by the United States. For a change, Israel wasn’t involved.

Targeting journalists has long been a common practice in the Arab Middle East. When Thomas Friedman was covering Lebanon for UPI in the early 1980s, Western reporters knew that at any given moment they could be either abducted or killed by one of the armed militias of Beirut. “Your newspaper would name a scholarship after you, and that would be the end of it. Any reporter who tells you he wasn’t intimidated or affected by this environment is either crazy or a liar,” wrote Friedman in his book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem.”

After the Israeli pullout from Gaza two years ago, instead of a Palestinian nation-building thrust, the place has become a Beirut-like scene, with a weak (Fatah) central authority and armed militias calling the shots. With Hamas taking over Gaza by force recently, it seems as if some order has been restored. Indeed, by forcing the Army of Islam to release Johnston, Hamas has demonstrated that it is in charge — or at least, the strongest militia in Gaza.

That is precisely the point. The Palestinians don’t have a civil society — they have a web of armed militias fighting each other, sometimes for ideological or religious reasons, and sometimes just for power and even greed. Every Palestinian in Gaza will tell you that the so-called Army of Islam is none other than the Doghmush clan, which simply makes a living out of kidnapping people for ransom.

Furthermore, Hamas itself is an armed militia that has toppled, by force, the lawful government in Gaza. Not to mention the fact that the Palestinian Authority has so many security services in the first place, sometimes conflicting with each other, and definitely not working together to maintain law and order.

Indeed, the Palestinians did go to the ballots, but it was only a facade of democracy: it was actually a contest between armed militias disguised as political parties, with few people really intending to peacefully accept the results of the elections.

When asked this week how the Palestinians could possibly have developed a civil society under Israeli rule, Shlomo Avineri, a world-renowned political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, borrowed a page from the Palestinian history.

Following World War I, he said, when the British established the Mandate over Palestine, they allowed both the Jewish and the Arab (Palestinian) communities to establish their own respective institutions, under the British rule. The Jews right away created a nascent parliament, held elections and started building agencies that handled most public affairs, like education, settlement, etc.

The Arabs, on the other hand, appointed an assembly of notables, who were never elected and who did almost nothing for their public’s good. And, during the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939), more Arabs were killed by Arabs in the feud between the two Palestinian clans — the Husseinis and the Nashashibis — than in the fight against the British or the Jews. It seems that nothing is really new under the Palestinian sun.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is coming to the Middle East with an ambitious plan to revive the derailed peace process. We are told that his main focus will be the promotion of civil society among the Palestinians. We all keep our fingers crossed.

I only hope that there will still be foreign journalists around to report on accomplishments.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald.

Does Hamas takeover mean new hope for kidnapped Israeli soldier?


Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip is spurring hope for the safe return of an Israeli soldier kidnapped nearly a year ago by the fundamentalist Islamic group, even as it issued a terse warning to Israel not to harm its leaders “or forget about Gilad Shalit.”

Shalit, then a 19-year-old army corporal, was captured last June 25 during a cross-border raid and smuggled into Gaza. He has been held by Hamas and two other organizations involved in the attack in which two other Israelis were killed.

Israeli officials and family members are hoping that with Hamas now in control of Gaza, having prompted their rivals in Fatah to flee to the West Bank following a bloody conflict last week, Hamas alone will be able to decide Shalit’s fate.

“There is a new situation and I hope Prime Minister Olmert will know how to take advantage of it,” Noam Shalit told journalists at a graveside ceremony Sunday marking a year since his son was captured and his son’s comrades were killed.

It would be in Hamas’ interest, experts argue, to make a deal now.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Gilad Shalit and for Alan Johnston for sure,” said Lt. Col. (Res.) Anat Berko, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, referring to the BBC reporter who was abducted in Gaza in March. “I think Hamas wants to show that they are the boss, that they can make things happen and they are the ones with the key.”

Analysts say that Hamas first must prove to nervous Gazans that it can deliver on a practical level by providing basic items such as gasoline, food, electricity and water. This would mean securing even a minimum level of cooperation with Israel, which could be bolstered significantly by the release of Shalit.

Second, making a prisoner swap with Israel would boost Hamas’ popularity in Gaza as well as the West Bank. The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a hugely emotional one on the Palestinian street, where almost every family has a relative or friend in an Israeli jail.

Hamas is likely to want to make a deal on prisoners before Israel makes one with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a move that would strengthen Abbas and Fatah’s standing instead of that of Hamas.

Hamas, said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University, “is in the process of being maligned and criticized in an unprecedented way because the picture that dominates the international press is of the Hamas member with a mask, in a terrorist uniform, with a gun in his hand. On the other hand, they have never been in a position of having full responsibility for the daily lives of 1.5 million people.”

Ezrahi said that “the rewards of releasing Shalit would not be higher in the future. I think Hamas right now after its military victory is definitely in the mood to try to cut political losses and public image losses they are suffering. I think they should have a very compelling motivation to release Shalit now.”

In the West Bank, Fatah spokesman Samir Nayfa suggested to the Palestinian media that a deal between Hamas and Israel could happen, even in unexpected ways.

“Hamas might announce that Shalit disappeared amidst the state of chaos in Gaza Strip, or they might announce that he ran away,” he said. “Hamas might go to the extreme of announcing that Fatah people helped Shalit run away.”

At the same time, Hamas issued a terse warning on Saturday about Shalit.

“If any of Hamas’ leaders are harmed, Israel can forget about Gilad Shalit,” a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, told reporters.

The daily Ha’aretz cited security sources reporting that the Egyptians, who had been mediating with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to broker a deal for Shalit, might resume efforts soon if the situation in Gaza does continue to wind down. They had stopped in recent weeks as the fighting between Fatah and Hamas intensified, the sources said.

David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, said that Shalit’s release is still very much at the top of the Israeli agenda.

“Israel will not relent in its efforts to allow for the safe return for our soldier Gilad Shalit.” he said. “These efforts continue unabated.”

Observers say that if Hamas does strike a deal to swap prisoners with Israel, it also would break Israel’s self-imposed taboo on talking to Hamas, even if it is through the Egyptians. This would also be to Hamas’ advantage.

Berko, the Herzliya center researcher who recently published the book, “The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers,” said that despite Israel’s desires to strengthen the secular Fatah movement over Hamas, the time may have come to realize it can influence things only so far.

“I think this is not the time to deal with strengthening or weakening sides. We saw Israel cannot predict or create all the processes in the Middle East. We saw it in Lebanon and we are seeing it all over the world,” she said, referring to the surge of Islamic fundamentalism of which Hamas is a part.

“As time passes it will become harder to secure Shalit’s release. Now something has changed and we have to take the opportunity and speak with the devil,” she said. l

Local community refuses to forget 12 missing Persian Jews


12 missing Persian Jews: not forgotten

Nearly 300 members of the Iranian Jewish community and local Persian-language media gathered at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on Sept. 27 for an event sponsored by the Council of Iranian Jews to discuss the fate of 12 Persian Jews who were kidnapped by the Iranian secret police between 1994 and 1997 and have not been heard from since. Family members of the missing 12 Jews were on hand to express their frustration with lack of cooperation from the Iranian regime.

“I am sure my son is not lost; he’s alive and being held by the Iranian government and that regime must answer to where they are holding our youngsters!” said Elana Tehrani, whose 17-year-old son, Babak, was arrested by Iranian secret police when trying to flee Iran into Pakistan in 1994.

Those in attendance cried when photos of the missing 12 Jews were held up for the audience with their names and dates of abduction announced. An emotional recorded telephone message to the community from Orit Ravizadeh, one of the missing Jews’ wives living in Israel, was also played for the audience.

Speakers at the event included Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet and the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Persian Jewish activists George Haroonian, Bijan Khailli, Frank Nikbakht and Pooya Dayamin who spoke at the event said they have been active in trying to resolve the case of the missing 12 for the last six years.

Earlier this month, the kidnapped victim’s families filed suit against Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami for implementing a policy of abduction and imprisonment of their loved ones.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Smile, darn ya!

Operation Smile, a leading humanitarian and medical services organization dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children and young adults worldwide, honored humanitarians Vanessa and Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump family; L.A. Clippers of present (Elton Brand) and past (Norm Nixon); and Abbott, the global health care company, at its fifth annual Operation Smile Gala Sept. 21 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Among the prominent civic leaders in attendance were Milt Hinsch, Jerry and Vicki Moyers, Joe and Sue Kainz, Dennis Seider and dental innovator Dr. Bill Dorfmann, author of “Billion Dollar Smile, a Complete Guide to Your Smile Makeover.”

The evening, whose honorary chairs were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wife, Cindy, began with a VIP party, complete with goodies and piano accompaniment and culminated in a dinner and awards ceremony emceed by “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. Guests were royally entertained by multi-Grammy Award-winner Christopher Cross and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy.

Lladro, the renowned Spanish House of Porcelain, donated $150,000 to the cause and the evening included a surprise visit from Madelein Cordova Dubon, a 2-year-old girl from Honduras who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Event co-chairs Roma Downey and Mark Burnett had recently participated in an Operation Smile medical mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they met and bonded with Madelein.

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker. It has provided free reconstructive surgery to more than 100,000 children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates, tumors and other birth defects in 32 countries around the world.

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Dr. Sarah Weddington, renowned winning attorney in one of the most famous cases in U.S. history, Roe v. Wade, spoke at the annual fundraiser for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP) recently. Opening her speech, she immediately expressed her deep sadness about learning of the death of her dear friend, colleague and fellow Texan, Ann Richards, former governor of the state of Texas.

“I had the privilege of knowing Ann since the early ’70s,” she told the large group of supporters who turned out for the event. “When it came to running for a political office, Ann was a guru and pioneer in the art of running for political office and winning. Her inspiration, courage and quick wit were element of her savvy personality. Ann Richards was a friend, mentor and role model for women.”

WRRAP raises money for low-income women of all ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds who are unable to pay for either emergency contraception or a safe and legal abortion. The event featured sumptuous hors d’oeuvres and a wine reception. Following Weddington’s speech and comments on the upcoming Proposition 85, which would prohibit abortions for California teens until 48 hours after their parents have been notified, there was a Q-and-A session.

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French Views Split on Halimi’s Murder


Some French remain convinced that the barbaric torture and murder of Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew, was not an anti-Semitic hate crime.

The kidnap murder has been declared an anti-Semitic act by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy but also a violent crime whose motive was money. Since Halimi was found abandoned in a suburban train station Feb. 13 and died on the way to the hospital, the affair has been the talk of France.

The suspects reportedly told police they tried to kidnap Jews because “all Jews are rich,” and they put cigarettes out on Halimi’s face because “he was Jewish, and we don’t like Jews.”

“The fact that the suspects said that all Jews are rich does not mean a thing,” said Sylvain Francois, a French television video editor. “According to what we know now, I don’t think it was anti-Semitic. It was cheap, violent crime.”

“This was more an idiotic act than an anti-Semitic one,” commented Gerard LeMoelle, a French television journalist. “This is not classic anti-Semitism of the extreme right or the extreme left as we know it here in France, so it can’t be anti-Semitic.”

Terence Kenny, a champagne export director originally from New York, who lives in a small town about two hours east of Paris, said the French public is in denial but not itself anti-Semitic for being so.

“This crime is so over the top that the French are unable to see it as anti-Semitic,” Kenny said. “Nobody wants to believe that this can be going on here.”

He added that Jews and anti-Semitism are not a usual subject of conversation in small-town France, but “once you begin explaining this, people agree that it is anti-Semitic.”

Halimi was lured on a date with a girl who came to the cellphone store where he worked and was then kidnapped and tortured for three weeks by a gang of young people called “Barbarians” by the French press.

The alleged leader of the gang, Youssouf Fofana, has been extradited from the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where his parents were born. Most but not all of the suspects arrested by police are of Arab North African or black African Muslim origin.

Many Arabs born in France agree that the crime is indeed anti-Semitic. Saida Elidrissi, an assistant bank manager of Muslim Moroccan origin, said the notion that all Jews are rich is false and racist.

“If you replace the word Jewish with the word Arab, for me it would be clearly anti-Arab, so this is clearly anti-Semitic,” she said.

“When the alleged leader was interviewed in Ivory Coast, it struck me how calm and relaxed he was,” Elidrissi said. “He must be a real monster; so this is also a sick crime.”

There also was criticism for French attitudes.

“The French are cowards,” said Yacine Dahmani, a technician of Muslim Algerian origin born in the heavily North African Jewish and Arab district of Belleville in Paris. “These guys are anti-Semitic animals. The actions of some French have disgusted me.”

He also shook his head at the conditions in which the perpetrators of the crime were nurtured.

“The young people of North African and African origins born in the suburban housing projects live in cliches,” he said. “They really believe that Jews are all rich. Many of those young people are ignorant and live literally outside of society, but the French don’t want to deal with any of this.”

Like the recent Muslim riots in France, this case has underscored the sense of racial divide between some Gaullic French and French Muslims.

“These people are sick, and we French simply don’t want to deal with this,” said Chiapardelli Berengere, a city housing employee. “Our society is changing. These people are not French like I am French. The situation makes me angry.”

Some in the Jewish community say they are fed up with their non-Jewish countrymen.

“You can turn this around anyway you want, but the bottom line is that most French people do not give a damn,” said Michael Sebban, an author and high school philosophy teacher in a tough northern suburb of Paris.

“I know first-hand how ignorant some of the North African suburban kids are and how much they hate Jews,” Sebban said, “but I also know that my educated Arab friends know exactly what is going on. They know that most French people just don’t give a damn about Jews or Arabs.”

A French Jewish journalist counseled patience.

“There is little that Jews can do to deal with this French attitude [of anger and indifference],” said Meir Waintrater, editor in chief of L’Arche, a widely read French-language Jewish monthly. “People cannot feel that the official response is coming from pressure from the organized Jewish community. So for now, we have to sit back and let justice run its course.”

Rites Commemorate Death of Halimi


by Peter L. Rothholz
Contributing Writer


“Today is a day of mourning for us all” said Philippe Larrieu, the consul-general of France, at UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center last month. He was addressing about 60 members of the L.A. Jewish community who had come to memorialize Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew who was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered in Paris in February.

Larrieu told the gathering that France is “fully committed” to eradicating anti-Semitism, which he characterized as a “negation” of the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, reminded the gathering of the infamous 19th century French Dreyfus case, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was framed and imprisoned on an island as a result of anti-Semitism. Myers cautioned that “we must remain vigilant” and acknowledge that the death of Halimi is a result of anti-Semitism, which continues to be “a French problem.”

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel, conducted the traditional Jewish memorial service. He challenged the leaders of all religions to raise their voices so that we can “transcend our differences and come together” in the cause of humanity.

Diana Tehrani, a third-year biology major spoke on behalf of the UCLA student body, expressing kinship with Halimi because of their similar ages. She said that she was “upset that it has taken so long for his death to be recognized as an act of anti-Semitism.”

Among those in attendance were several people originally from France. Ghislaine Afshani of Westwood, a native of Rheims and whose family still lives there, said that “a lot of people are in denial, but there is a lot of anti-Semitism in France.” She added, however, that she was “really happy” that the French government cares and that its top officials have spoken out about the Halimi case.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Evelyne Fodor, formerly from Lyons and now living in Hollywood, who commented that “these things make people feel uncomfortable, but we want to show that we are concerned, for this could have happened to anyone.”

Regardless of their origin, virtually all participants agreed with Tovah Dershowitz, wife of the former rabbi of Sinai Temple, who stressed the importance of being aware and speaking out against anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it exists.

Joshua Brumbach, a fourth-year UCLA student majoring in ancient Near-Eastern civilizations, said he was “very sad” that there were not more students present for the memorial. Doris Montrose of Woodland Hills, whose father was an Auschwitz survivor, compared the relatively small turnout to “the pre-Holocaust era, when people stuck their head in the ground and their butt in the air.”

The service was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA and the consulate-general of France in Los Angeles.